by Nicole Rivard
Last summer I was on my way to work when I spotted a blue jay on the opposite side of the road as oncoming cars whizzed by. I quickly pulled over. Miraculously, she hadn’t been hit, but she was in shock.
I scooped her up and placed the young bird under a tree away from the busy street, and when I went back a couple hours later she was still there. I called Wildlife in Crisis Care and Conservation, a well-known non-profit in Weston, Connecticut, not far from Friends of Animals’ Darien headquarters. Peter Reid heard the blue jay squawking for food and knew instantly she was too young to feed herself and needed time to grow flight feathers. Hearing that there was no nest or parents in sight, he told me to bring her to the center.
Then in August, a barn swallow family took up residence at the stable where I work on Sundays, and one of the fledglings couldn’t fly like its brothers and sisters. With Hurricane Henri barreling toward the state, I called WIC, and once again, the center welcomed us with open arms. The barn swallow had damaged tail feathers that needed to heal.
I was amazed to recently learn that Wildlife in Crisis receives 200 calls like mine a day and that it cares for more than 5,000 injured and orphaned wild animals each year, encompassing more than 200 species ranging from hummingbirds to black bears.
“We do not discriminate at WIC, we care for endangered and common species alike,” says WIC Director/ Founder Dara Reid, who has been saving wildlife one life at a time since 1988. “They are all precious to us.”
During a recent visit, Reid explained that each of WIC’s patients has his or her own unique story to tell. For example, last summer she raised three orphaned black bear cubs whose mother was shot after she killed a resident’s unleashed dog while protecting her cubs. During the winter of 2020, Reid cared for a bald eagle who had been caught in a steel-jaw leghold trap.
The day I visited in November, Reid was caring for a black-backed gull who was found entangled in fishing line and was recovering from heavy-metal poisoning, which causes seizures and incoordination, as well as a little hummingbird recovering from pesticide poisoning. And there were dozens of others receiving her tender love and care.
When Reid established the center 34 years ago, the goal was to serve Fairfield County, the most densely populated area in Connecticut. But she takes in animals from all over the state, and even from New York and Massachusetts. Her longevity in the field speaks volumes—she’s witnessed lots of people in the field come and go.
“They do it for a while and they stop. You can burn out really fast after doing this,” she says.
For Reid, the most difficult part is seeing the ever-increasing impact humans are having on wildlife. “We see first-hand the obstacles that wild animals face every day. The umbrella issue is habitat destruction,” Reid says. “Wildlife rehabilitation, although a moral imperative, is only a band-aid. Every one of our patients is either a direct or indirect victim of land development.”
With suburban sprawl comes cars, cats, dogs, lawns, lawnmow – ers, pesticides, herbicides, fertilizers, rodenticides, glue traps, leghold and box traps, tree clearing, fishing line, netting, litter and other human-in – duced dangers, Reid points out.
“There is much each of us can do to mitigate these issues. Case in point: We receive countless songbirds each year who fall victim to free-roaming cats. Keeping cats indoors is better for cats and vulnerable wildlife alike,” she says. Because Reid felt it would be irresponsible if WIC failed to address land preservation—the long-term solution to wildlife preservation—she formed the Wildlife in Crisis Land Trust. Each of WIC’s sanctuaries exist solely to protect the wild animals within. WIC also encourages people to support land preservation in their hometowns and get involved in local land trusts.
“Land trusts are so important in terms of habitat protection. We often release birds on their properties,” Reid says.
The WIC property itself is an oasis for wildlife who live in the vicinity, and of course, to its patients. It boasts 50 different enclosures for numerous species at different levels of recovery.
“We like to refer to it as a village,” Reid says. “The most rewarding thing about wildlife rehabilitation is being able to provide a sanctuary for our wild patients to heal and grow,” Reid says. “We can’t guarantee what will happen after we release them. But I want them to be as comfortable as possible while they are here. And to be calm and happy.”
That’s why WIC is in the process of building an impressive, multi-level black bear rehabilitation enclosure after retrofitting a racoon enclosure to house the three orphaned bear cubs. The new habitat features nesting boxes, climbing structures, tubs and tunnels to a pre-release enclosure.
Meandering through the buildings, I met several animals who were wintering at WIC to heal and bulk up before they could be released in the spring and summer. They included a skunk, barred owls, red-tailed hawks and peregrine falcons, many of which were hit by cars.
Some of the animals brought to WIC are unable to be released due to physical or behavioral disabilities. It’s always been Reid’s goal to provide sanctuary with dignity to these permanent residents.
I was enamored by three big brown bats Curtis, Bitty and Esmerelda. I was thrilled when Reid said I could pet Esmie’s amazingly soft fur. I marveled at Lucy, a great horned owl who ended up at WIC after getting entangled in fishing line. Fishing line is everywhere; it’s a huge threat to wildlife, according to Reid. At 35, Lucy has become a great foster mom.
“We put the babies in here with her and she teaches them to be owls,” Reid says. Lucy looked like a work of art. “Isn’t she? To this day, I am just in awe of great horned owls. I just think they are magnificent,” Reid says.
Woody the wood duck and Felix the fox are reminders that people should call their local wildlife rehabilitator immediately when they find animals in need of help. The kind people who found Woody kept him for several weeks before bringing him in, and in the process he became imprinted on humans, which precludes his release.
Felix had a broken leg when he was found, which was repairable, but the people kept him for too long and it healed incorrectly.
I won’t soon forget the soulful eyes of Marty the screech owl. He was a victim of a tree cutting by Eversource Energy Company. A man found him bleeding at the base of the dismembered tree. Marty lost one of his feet and two toes on the other foot.
“Birds have very high blood pressure and very low blood volume, so it’s very important to stop the bleeding because they can bleed to death very easily. I never thought he would survive. It’s a miracle he’s alive,” says Reid.
Reid credits WIC’s interns for providing the continuity of care that is vital for patients. Over the past 34 years, WIC has had hundreds of interns from throughout the U.S. Most are recent college graduates, and some are veterinarians and PhDs.
“It is very hard work and very long hours,” Reid says. “Our internships are unpaid, as we are entirely volunteer run, but interns receive an intensive experience caring for countless species of wildlife.”
Reid said her daughter, Willow Rain, is interested in wildlife rehabilitation and helps out at WIC when she’s home from college, where she is studying conservation biology.
“When she gets out of school, she’s coming back here,” Reid says with a smile.
Reid informed me Willow Rain was the one who took the barn swallow from me last summer. I recalled how gently and lovingly she handled the bird and how she reassured me the swallow was going to be OK.
She was happy to let me know there were other swallows there she’d make friends with. They say the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree. And in the case of Reid and Willow Rain, that’s a win-win for wildlife.
To support Wildlife in Crisis, visit wildlifeincrisis.org or send check donations to Wildlife in Crisis, P.O. Box 1246, Weston, CT 06883.